I don't suppose I'll ever become a convert to the Church of Richard Wagner, but if you must get a dose of his epic Ring cycle, I should think the current Met production of Das Rheingold puts on as good a face as you are likely to get. We caught the HD theatre production this morning: Jame Levine's conducting is top notch and the casting is consistently superb throughout. But the true Lord of this Ring is Robert Lepage, he who has mounted two shows for Cirque de Soleil and seems to have established himself as the go-to-man in this generation for theatrical spectacle.
This is not Lepage's first Met outing: he mounted that hyper-techno-complicated Damnation of Faust back in 2008 which was fun to look at but sounded like it must be a nightmare to perform in (sounds like the singers never knew exactly where they were, nor what was going on around them). Somebody was bound to try to upstage Berlioz; Lepage certainly seems like the man for the job.
Oddly enough, with Wagner you can pretty much get away with it. As somebody (probably Lepage himself) says in the intro to the HD theatre performance, Wagner was avid to use any available theatrical trick; his limitations were purely technical. So there's really nothing you can try in a Wagner opera that Wagner wouldn't have tried himself if he had the chance.
The project, then, is predictably ambitious but the result is oddly restrained. The publicity keeps hammering at the fact that the set weighs 45 tons, but from the front you don't really sense all that. There are plenty of effects--swooping, swimming maidens, lots of walking up and down of walls, and suchlike. But a lot of it takes place behind the scenes. The front of the stage, for once, does not insist in revealing all the zippers.
[Remarkably, the video does show some of the zippers: you get a memorable glance at the crew manipulating the giant set, all in formation like so many galley slaves; you wonder in which forgotten war they were all captured.]
This is I think he fourth Rheingold that I've seen in my life, if you count the DVD I more or less slept through. It's the second with a world-class conductor at the top of his form--the other was Daniel Barenboim at La Scala just a few months ago. But when it comes to production, you just can't beat the Met and it's almost shame to think of Barenboim having to operate in the shadows.
I do fret a bit about Stephanie Blythe, though. A few years back she turned in one of the best performances I've ever seen in Gluck's Orfeo. Today as Fricka, the wife of Wotan, she was fine, but she is getting so heavy that she seems to be having trouble just moving around the stage. Her problem, I guess, and not mine, but I'd hate to see it impair such a wonderful career.
Update: An offblog commentator reminds me that while Lepage may deserve credit for the concept, the set is the creation of Carl Fillio.